in the shadow of liberty

I read In the Shadow of Liberty in just under two hours, over the course of two nights of elliptical sessions. It’s a quick read. I made a mistake making it my gym book, because holding a hardcover with one hand two nights in a row is a great recipe for finger pain and hand cramps.

This is good, but I don’t see it as quite as revolutionary and amazing as so many others seem to. That may be a result of the fact that, as a black person and a lifetime avid reader, even “untold” histories of black people are less astonishing (and less likely to have been unencountered) to me than they would to a white reader of any age. Davis makes a point at the beginning of the book of noting that he strove use the word “enslaved” over “slaves” in order to draw attention to the fact that these were people, not items, and to drive home how horrifying the institution of slavery was, which is all well and good, except that he’s not all that consistent with it. Further, he uses “servants” indiscriminately, and while more than once he points out that white people called slaves their servants and that is incredibly problematic, but he also does so himself, so I don’t think it’s really going to drive the point home. We all know from the Rue problem and others that white readers need racialized things yelled at them in print a million times before they actually see them.

I’m trying to figure out who this book is for. It’s definitely middle school level, so lower YA, which is great, and if schools actually used narrative nonfiction to teach history over Texas textbook garbage, this would be a great choice. I’m sure teen history buffs would want to read it on their own, but I think that’s really white teens. Even if some of these people are utterly unheard of for me, which is rare when it comes to such things, since we have such a limited view of nonwhite historical figures, I feel about as surprised to read such narratives as I am, as a Jew, to read Holocaust memoirs. They’re all terrible, and they’re all worth being told, but don’t expect me to be shocked as if it’s the first I’m hearing of it. I just feel like

So I dunno. it’s a good book. Is it a great book? It’s incredibly repetitive, and it is necessarily dull at times simply because there is so little information available. For what information is there, it is clearly well researched and well intended, and I think it’s honorable to write about people who didn’t get to tell their own stories, or who didn’t have the size of audience they deserved. I think the real problem is it couldn’t decide whether it was a narrative for people who already knew the basics or a sort of counternarrative written to be like a history textbook but with actual accuracy and sensitivity surrounding slavery. It should have picked one or the other. The also “problem” is only a problem if you choose to view it that way, but it’s that, as I said, this book rightly assumes that all American children have an abysmal social studies education, but it wrongly assumes that because of that fact, all readers will come to it with the same lack of information.


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